The best hotel bartender I encountered in my travels didn't need any new training program to teach him how to make great cocktails. Gus Tassopulos, dean of the barmen at L.A.'s Hotel Bel-Air, has been mixing drinks for five decades. He started at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1959 and came to the Bel-Air in 1990. Mine wasn't the first request for an Americano, which he mixed right up. His Sidecar was a thing of beauty, made with fresh lime juice, and every ingredient carefully measured to make sure the drink would have the correct balance. Mr. Tassopulos was also a paradigm of dignified, old-school service -- friendly but formal, attentive without being intrusive.
Mr. Tassopulos laments that there aren't many good bartenders these days. Yes, there are men and women serious about the craft. But they are generally focused on becoming celebrity mixologists, cocktail consultants -- or, at the very least, they want to own their own high-end bars one day. More power to them. But otherwise, barmen tend to be waiters or waitresses who graduate to the better-paying spot behind the bar and stick it out long enough to finish school or get the acting job they've been chasing. "Bartending isn't what people want as a career now," Mr. Tassopulos says, which explains why I ran into so many people who didn't seem to care what they pushed across the mahogany.
Take the young man I found tending bar at Hollywood's brilliantly restored Roosevelt Hotel. He happily told me that he didn't know how to make many drinks at all. When needed, he could always just look something up in the bar book behind the counter. But most of the time he didn't bother to use the book: "If people ask for a drink I don't know," he explained, "I can always kind of make something with sour mix and vodka and they'll be happy." A more eloquent and concise expression of the state of bartending in America you couldn't hope to find.
Far too often these days, the simple act of trying to order a drink brings a response of ignorance, arrogance, or apathy from the bartender. They don't know, they don't have time for such menial things as serving a customer, or they simply don't care.
UPDATE-- Here are a couple of more observations on the matter, penned by JB and
Hey Bartender #1
Hey Bartender #2